What is a Katana Sword?

Brendan McGuigan

A katana sword is a specific type of Japanese sword, with a slightly curved blade that is more than 23.5 inches (60cm). Occasionally, the term katana sword will be used simply to mean any Japanese sword, but this is not correct, as there are a number of different Japanese swords, including the wakizashi, tanto, tachi, ninjato, kodachi, or chokuto.

The katana sword is closely associated with the samurai.
The katana sword is closely associated with the samurai.

Meant to be held in two hands, a katana sword has a blade with a single, extremely sharp, edge. The katana sword is closely associated with the samurai of Japan, and they began being produced during the Feudal period around the 15th century. The katana sword has become very popular in mainstream culture, both in the West and the East, and is featured heavily in film, literature, and video games.

The tanto is a type of Japanese sword.
The tanto is a type of Japanese sword.

The katana sword is similar to some other types of Japanese sword, including the chisakatana, which is essentially a shortened version of the katana sword; the chokuto, which is like a straight katana; the dotanuki, which is thicker than most katanas; an o-katana, which is a very long katana; and a uchigatana, which is one of the forerunners of the modern katana sword. The shin gunto is a specialized form of the katana sword, carried by members of the Japanese Army during the War period from the early-1930s until the end of World War II.

The katana sword developed as battle developed in Japan, and the speed of fights became much faster. In fact, one of the main innovations of the katana sword was its ability to be drawn and cut immediately, by having the blade facing up as it was worn. This allowed for a wound to be inflicted immediately in battle. In fact an entire style of fighting, iaido, has developed based on this. In iaido, the emphasis is on a controlled drawing of the blade, a single cut, the removal of blood, and the resheathing of the sword. Iaido has developed into an incredibly intricate form, done mostly on one’s own through a series of complex kata, and because of its ritualistic beauty and centeredness it is sometimes called moving Zen.

Forging a katana sword is an incredible art, and a great deal of mythology and lore has sprung up around it. Traditional katana are very difficult to come by, and even those forged during World War II are incredibly valuable. A small number of licensed weaponsmiths still exist in Japan, forging katana in the traditional, labor-intensive style. The katana made by these smiths are known as shinsakuto, and finding one can be very difficult. Many lower-grade reproductions do exist, however, ranging from cheap $20 US Dollar (USD) katana, to high-end carbon steel katana that can cost upwards of $10,000 USD.

Although very expensive, and requiring a high degree of skill, forging a traditional katana sword is not quite as time intensive as popular culture has sometimes made it out to be. A skilled smith could produce a blade in a day, or at most a few days. The katana is one of a handful of traditional swords which folded the steel back on itself repeatedly, reducing weak points, increasing overall strength, improving the quality of the steel by burning away imperfections, and adding a grain to the sword.

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